In a recent survey, the analyst firm IDC estimated that 281 billion gigabytes of digital information was created in 2007, an amount that is growing by 60 percent annually.1

 

While billions of gigabytes is not a number I can relate to every time I open my email or glance at my hard drive’s “my documents” folder, I’m reminded that information is increasingly easier to capture, create and distribute, yet harder and harder to find, organize and manage.

 

Approximately 80 percent of the information we use in our business is unstructured, which means that it lives in documents, emails, presentations, videos and other formats. By comparison, structured information lives in the neatly managed world of a relational database, where the information domain has been thoughtfully designed, modeled and controlled.

 

 Surprisingly in most organizations, only 10 percent of this unstructured information is managed through an information lifecycle in a formal way from creation to approval to archival or disposal.

 

During the 1990s, I spent several years consulting for pharmaceutical companies to implement large-scale systems that managed the creation of regulatory submissions for new drug approvals. The focus on a rigorous discipline for information lifecycle management was mission critical. Yet, stepping outside of the project room, you’d experience the “haves and have-nots” effect. 90 percent of the business had little or no support to help share and control information other than an intranet, a network drive and/or email. The perception was this lack of information management only impacted office productivity, not regulatory compliance. Because business information wasn't considered mission-critical and the costs of deploying an information management system were so high, the issue went unaddressed. This gap between the haves and have-nots continues today.

 

The challenge across an enterprise is how to allow information workers to be as productive as possible while supporting the business need to control, retain, share, and re-use valuable information. Most importantly, how can a cost-effective system be deployed to support users who don’t have the high level of motivation required to organize, categorize and publish information? The simplicity of email can make it hard for users to change their habits.

 

Focus on Cooperation, not Control

 

The consumer Internet provides some useful insights into how these challenges can be addressed. Over the last few years, we’ve seen a surge in the growth of Web sites that share, manage, and distribute user-generated content. For example, YouTube and Wikipedia are now the third and eighth most visited Web sites on the Internet. This move toward the "read-write" Web, where anyone can publish information, has empowered consumers to express their expertise and passions, discuss and collaborate with others and, in the process, create some of the most valuable information available on the Internet. To help describe this type of application, the term "Web 2.0" was coined by the industry analyst and publisher, Tim O’Reilly. Web 2.0 is essentially a movement from the Internet as a destination to the Internet as an information platform. After spending time researching these areas I started to understand what Sun Microsystems meant when they changed their tagline to “The Network is the Computer.”

 

Enterprise 2.0 Models for Information Management

 

Organizations are now starting to evaluate whether the tools and techniques that individuals use in their consumer lives can help solve enterprise problems for information management and collaboration. This process is even more pronounced as Generation Y, which was born into the digital age, starts to enter the workplace with consumer-grade expectations for how people collaborate, communicate and share content.

 

A design pattern has emerged over the last two years which can be used to describe the behavior and characteristics of consumer Web 2.0 applications and how they can be applied to the enterprise. At the heart of these applications is a model which focuses on user cooperation and information sharing. Wikis, blogs and content distribution platforms all share a common set of characteristics:

 

  • Information structure emerges: On YouTube, users can classify videos using keywords known as tags that describe content rather then rely on a centrally-defined classification scheme (or taxonomy). The structure of the system emerges as more people tag information with the same keywords. This process is known as folksonomy.
  • Publish and subscribe model: As with many large-scale information management applications, Web 2.0 applications apply a publish-and-subscribe model that allows users to subscribe to information they are interested in and receive alerts when new information is published that matches their interest. For example, users can subscribe to articles in Wikipedia. Facebook is, at its heart, a publish-and-subscribe network for staying updated on what your friends are doing.
  • Strong search experience: A strong search capability is expected for any Web application. In addition, information about the popularity of information can be factored into the search results, taking you to the information that others have found most useful.
  • Support information discovery: The old adage, “I don’t know what I don’t know,” applies to large-scale information management applications that have a mechanism to recommend potentially helpful information to users.
  • Designed for widespread authoring: By opening access to allow widespread authoring, content can be created and improved by the community. Even if controls exist to limit who who can publish information, a feedback mechanism allows users to comment on information and therefore help improve it.
  • Everything is a Web resource: Every nugget of information can be referenced as a Web resource, allowing users to link to related information instead of copying it.

 

From personal experience, I’ve found four required capabilities that are specific to the enterprise:

 

  • Access control and permissions: Within an enterprise, not all information can be made available to all employees. You still need access controls, user groups/roles and administrators to control access.
  • Retention and refinement/archival/disposal: Almost regardless of what information is being managed, a long-term retention, archival or disposal plan needs to be in place. One of the criticisms of enterprise wikis is that as project-collaboration tools, the long-term usefulness of the information on the wiki diminishes quickly, resulting in outdated sites that are in dire need of wiki gardening to improve or remove content. A plan to archive, dispose of or refine information will keep the content fresh, relevant and compliant with company policies.
  • Taxonomies can coexist with folksonomies: The worlds of tag-based categorization and metadata taxonomies can coexist. Depending on the use case, it’s still sometimes better to have a company-agreed taxonomy that describes content in a consistent way.
  • Information usage and analytics: By capturing usage statistics for each item of information, you can start to build up a picture of which information assets are used in the business, how up-to-date the assets are and which users are contributing the most valuable information. This provides a level of analytics that has not been possible before, plus it creates a motivation for users to publish as they get data back in return that would not exist if they just used email. 

Enterprise 2.0 Applications: Where are they?

 

A quick Google search for Enterprise 2.0 will yield the expected list of conferences, technology providers and industry definitions. This list includes application such as content collaboration applications, community-building tools, wikis and blogs. Interestingly, the majority of companies have chosen software as a service (SaaS) as the delivery model for their technology. The SaaS approach alleviates the burden of having to procure, install, maintain and upgrade an in-house system. By taking a more utilitarian approach - just plug into the Internet and get started - it is easier for companies to evaluate and expand their usage without absorbing the huge up-front risk of implementing a major rollout.

 

A New Model for Information Management and Collaboration

 

The speed at which these Enterprise 2.0 approaches are being adopted by organizations indicates that the new methods fill a vacuum within enterprise information management Architecture. Allowing users to self-organize, share, collaborate and control information within their business could deliver the best of both worlds: an information management platform for the masses combined with a centrally controlled repository that IT can control, secure, and manage.

 

The consumer Internet is already marching slowly towards Web 3.0 and the semantic Web. But for now, I’ll leave you to research and contribute to the article on Wikipedia.

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